Rising Welsh songstress Ellie James, better known as Ellie Makes Music, Ellie’s been on a constant stream of gigs in the past four years, and has already build up a strong following online. Back in May, as the 19 year-old prepared for the upcoming release of her debut EP, I met her in a Starbucks in Cardiff for a natter about her upcoming EP, musical heroes and career-defining moments..!
So, you’ve been in the studio lately recording your EP. How did that come about?
I was in a competition called The Stage For Singer Songwriter, and it was part of Cardiff Music Festival, and the prize was a recording at the studios, and I won! So you record there, and then they release it – I think they were thinking a couple of people will enter with a few songs, and release them one by one – and I was like, ‘I’m going to do an EP, and it’s gonna be with 5 songs, and there’s gonna be a band, and we’re gonna have fun!’, and he was “[sighs] ..Okay.” [laughs] But it was good!
How was it, trying to find out which songs you wanted to put on your EP? Did you have a lot in your back catalogue?
Yeah.. it was more songs that I’d been performing for a while, songs that were kind of my ‘trademark’ songs. Things like ‘Shaky Hands’, which was the single.
Which is very good, I must say!
Thank you! It was kind of, everyone would go; “When is that going to be released? When am I going to be able to buy copies of ‘Shaky Hands’?” and I was like “I don’t know?!‘.. So that was an easy one to put on the EP. And it’s things like that, really. But there’s one song on there that was kind of, I wrote ages ago and then forgotten about and revisited it and changed it a bit, and thought “That’s going on the EP!”, and it’s my favourite on the EP!
How much of a change was it, from the way you’ve written before to actually adapt it to an EP?
It was really… weird, actually! We recorded them how I usually play them, and then we have the band come in and they built it up around it, and they would go “What do you think of this?” and I’d be like “Yep!” or “No!”, and then they recorded it – and the producer, Lee just sort of edited it together and adding little things here and there. It’s been more of a collaboration between all of us, instead of just me figuring it out – but I kind of knew what I wanted; like the drummer I sent him little step by steps for each verse and chorus, “This verse I want it to be loud, and this one not so loud!”
I suppose it’s quite nice to be able to do it like that, in that you get a lot of creative input into it – rather than having them say “i know it’s better to do it this way!”, you know how you want your songs to sound, and it’s fair..
Yeah, exactly! We did multiple takes, so it would be different each take, and then we can choose which one we liked, and mix it all together.
Are there any plans for any more singles, or maybe a video to go with ‘Shaky Hands’?
I want to do a music video – but not for ‘Shaky Hands’! I supported Al Lewis in Acapella Studios, because they do gigs as well as recording, so something we filmed there might become music videos. Hopefully that’ll happen, but I’m not 100% sure.. We have talked about doing a live music video, but it won’t be for ‘Shaky Hands’, it’ll be for a different song.
Any exclusive which song it would be? Or are you keeping it under your sleeve?
Oh I don’t know yet! I know which song I want it be, but I’m not sure yet.. [laughs] Still deciding!
And as well you probably want to do a video for them all..
Oh yeah, ideally. We might be doing two or three videos actually, so we’ll see..
What’s your song-writing process? Do you come up with the lyrics first, or do you tend to go for the melody?
It depends really, they’re all kind of different. One of my songs, ‘I Am Not What I Am’, I wrote the lyrics first – I wrote it at a bus stop, on my phone! And I’d been playing around with a guitar part, and I just played around with it for 5 minutes and it fit, so that just worked that way. But sometimes then, it’s come up with the guitar first, the melody first, or the lyrics first – it’s a whole jumble of mess, basically! There’s no straight way to do it. It just happens.. or doesn’t happen! [laughs] Most of the time I’ll write something, the verse and the chorus and go; “I have nowhere to go with this, I don’t like it”..and I’ll throw it away. Every now and then, it comes up with something good.
It’s quite a nice way to do it. If you have a pattern, I imagine it could make it quite forced – whereas if you do it like that, it’s more organic and adds more.. texture, in a way?
Yeah, it’s really a lot more organic. It makes them more interesting to me, because then I know what I was feeling when I wrote that particular song, and it just works better.
Do you create an idea, or concept for a song, or do you base it around your life?
My songs are about 25% personal stories, and then the rest is making stuff up, and exaggerating everything! I did drama and part of it, part of what I think drama was helpful for with music, is it’s making up character, exaggerating, and making up stories. It feeds into writing songs..
Is that easier, if you want to write from a third-person point of view?
I’ve never really written from that view, maybe I’ll do that.. It’s kind of like that though, yeah. Song-writing’s hard! [laughs] I get lost, very easily, with song-writing.
Was this, the singing, the song-writing, something you’d always wanted to do? Or did it just come about quite naturally to perform?
I don’t know.. well, I always wanted to be a singer, but I was sure what kind of singer. And then, my Dad always played guitar, and I went through an ’emo phase’, where I wanted to be in a punk band, and I wanted to be.. what’s-her-name, from Paramore?
Hayley Williams! I wanted to be her, at one point.
I think everybody wants to be Hayley!
Yeah, she was good! [giggles] But yeah, then I learnt to play guitar, and I feel in love with people like Joni Mitchell, and it came about that way. I did always want to be a singer – whether that was musical theatre, or rock , I wasn’t sure.
Going back to how you learnt guitar, did you teach yourself?
I did, I did teach myself guitar. I had a couple of guitar lessons, and my guitar teacher was a bit of a dick – I didn’t like him! Well my first guitar teacher, he used to just teach me like rock guitar and I didn’t like it, and I decided I wanted to learn chords, so I taught myself chords and then left him, and then just carried on playing chords. Then my next guitar teacher tried to teach me rock guitar again, but I just wanna learn chords and finger-picking! So then I just taught myself.. it was easier.
I suppose it must be quite nice, to know you have gained that yourself, and then you’ve got your own style from that..?
Yeah exactly, because I learnt guitar – chords and everything first – so that was easy, and I started learning Joni Mitchell and Laura Marling songs, which are all like open-tunings and weird guitar parts. So I kind of developed my own style from a mixture of the two.. I think that was useful.
You mentioned Laura Marling, would you say she’s been a big influence on your song-writing style, as well as like the performance aspect?
Yeah, I think so.. I don’t want to be Laura Marling 2.0. I never wanted to be that, because she’s quite.. strange? She’s really.. it’s a good thing, she’s great. Her lyrics aren’t, I like to think my lyrics are more heart-on-the-sleeve lyrics, whereas her’s are more unusual and metaphors, and you don’t know what she means sometimes, so it’s a bit weird. I’d want to be a bit more commercial than Laura. So she is a big influence, but then there’s people like Sue [Denim] and Ben Howard, Mumford and Sons, Joni Mitchell.
[Ellie supported Sue in Cardiff last year] What was it like working with Sue, how did that come about?
Ahh Sue, she’s lush.. One of my big things when I was younger, ’cause Robots In Disguise were my biggest obsessions, my life for ages – and I used to cover their songs, on YouTube. Then I went to a gig to see them, at Clwb Ifor Bach, and I was at the front, I was dancing away, and in between songs Sue went; “You cover our songs on YouTube!”, and I was like “..yeah!?”, and she invited me to go and sing with them! I sang ‘We’re In The Music Biz’ with them on stage, Dee wouldn’t let me play her guitar.. After that, I just became acquaintances with them; if ever I saw them, we’d have conversations, and they’d really nice, asking me about my music and things. Then Sue said she was coming to Cardiff, so I just tweeted her asking if I could support her, and she said yeah! [smiles] It was really nice, she’s always lovely!
That’s quite a turning point, for you. Was that something you were aware of, that Sue knew you [and the cover videos]?
I didn’t think anybody really watched them, apart from a few Robots In Disguise fans. And then Sue pointed me out, and Dee had like no idea and was like “What?”, and Sue was like “She’s really good!”. After I sung with them, Dee was like “Ohh, Britain’s got talent! [laughs]. I had no idea they knew my videos, at all – I think Sue just randomly searches herself sometimes!
That must’ve been nice though, to know that someone you do admire and idolise like that were aware of your work?
It was mental, to be honest! [laughs] It blew my mind..
What would you say was your defining moment, that made you think ‘Okay, this is what I want to do for a living!”?
I think it was, a mixture, of things really. My first ever gig, proper gig, was at Swn Festival – which is a really big festival! I just emailed the guys running it, and they were “Yeah, we’ll have you play!”. I’d never had a gig before in my entire life, and it was really weird.
Which year was Swn?
2009.. AGES ago! It was my first ever gig, so it was a bit scary.. But that made me realise that I wanted, to pursue it! But I supported Jose Vanders.. I sound like I’m proper name-dropping, I don’t mean to! But I supported Jose, and she’s always been a massive hero of mine, an inspiration for me and why I wanted to start writing music as well. And she was really complimentary, and really nice and she tweeted about me – it’s kind of having someone tell you that you’re good, makes you think that you should do it! And if Jose Vanders thinks I’m good..! [laughs]
Talking about defining moments, what would be your career highlights – even so early on?
Supporting Jose and Sue, they were big ones. What else? Ah, having my single come out – that was quite a big deal! I still can’t believe that’s out.. I’d been saying for years that I want to release an EP and a single, and then it happens, and I keep forgetting it’s happened – it’s something I’ve been waiting for, for such a long time! I don’t know how many copies it sold actually, because you’ve got wait quarterly, so when I find out in a couple of months that’ll be a career-defining moment! And.. just recording the EP, as well.
Is there anyone that you think you’d like to work with? Not necessarily as a support act, but maybe to write or sing with?
Well.. you know I like Darren Criss? Him, [laughs]. You follow me on Tumblr, so you might have seen my friend Laura [Coyle]? We want to do an EP together, in the summer, to release on Bandcamp. Just a small thing. Who else do I want to work with? [thinks for a moment] ..Ben Howard! These are all really big names though, it’ll never happen.
Considering you’ve got the single and the EP coming out, you’re definitely putting your name out there! You never know.. It may happen! Dream big!
[laughs] Who knows? Anybody really.. I’d like work with everyone, every single person, on the planet!
Ellie’s EP ‘City Lights’ will be available on iTunes and Amazon from September 1st!